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Rewriting Oliver’s Words: Dirty, Filthy, Nasty Scrape? (Part 2 of 12)

Oliver Cowdery has long been quoted that what happened between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger was a “dirty, filthy, nasty affair.”  But are those really his words?  It turns out that those are not actually Oliver’s words, but the words of his nephew!  In our next conversation with historian Don Bradley, Don will tell us how he came to that conclusion!

Don:  Here you’ve got Oliver Cowdery right around the time he’s excommunicated, writing to his brother, saying, something about Joseph’s dirty, nasty, filthy affair with Fanny Alger. So people are like, “Well, there you go. Oliver Cowdery at the time thought that it was adultery. So why would we think it was polygamy?”

But I noticed when I looked at the Church Archives microfilm, is that there was something funny. The word affair was written over top of another word. And I say, “What’s that word?” Because this seems to be a key, right? If Oliver originally wrote some other word, and then affair is written over it–you have to understand the letterbook was not written by Oliver. Oliver wrote the original letter to his brother. Then Oliver’s nephew took that original letter, copied it into letterbook for Oliver and the change is made in the handwriting of Oliver’s nephew. So the nephew is changing what Oliver said to something else. So the word “affair” isn’t Oliver’s word. Oliver’s original word is underneath that word and I had to know what it was, because everybody for decades cited this like, “Here you go. We’ve got the goods, it was an affair.”

So I could read some of the letters, but I wanted to be really sure. I had Chris [Smith] go look at it and he was able to read most of the word. Then we were able to get detailed images from the Huntington Library that Brian Hales has reproduced that show definitively what the word was. The original word is not affair. The word is scrape. You know S C R A P E, scrape. So if you look at what these words meant at the time, you can actually figure out what Oliver was originally saying and why his nephew changed it. So a scrape, according to the 1828 Webster’s, so just 10 years before Oliver’s letter was [written, the word scrape meant] a perplexity, a distress. It’s like a way of saying somebody got into a jam. They were in a scrape.

So, we’re talking about Joseph and Fanny Alger having gotten themselves into this jam and they need to get out of it. However, Webster indicates that this is, in his words, a low word. So this is actually not a really polite word. It’s sort of like slang. So Oliver’s nephew writes what Oliver had originally said and then he’s like, “I’m not going to leave this slang in there. This is not a great way to speak, to preserve this history.” So he just finds another word to write over it. He writes the word affair. We look at the word affair, and that word triggers all kinds of meanings.

GT:  We think sex.

Don:  We think sex. I’d invite listeners to like explore this for yourself. Go on to Google Books or some other database of 19th century texts and look at all the uses you can find of the word affair around this time, early to mid 19th century. Then look at later uses like late 19th century, 20th century. The connotation of a romantic affair, from just the word affair does not appear until around the end of the 19th century and it doesn’t come to mean pretty much talking about people having sex outside of marriage until even later than that. The word affair, actually, at the time, is a very general word rather than a very specific word. I’m trying to remember his wording there, but Webster defines affair and he actually says a word, a very broad word, a very general and indefinite signification. It’s just a really super broad word. Basically, as Webster defines it, the word just means anything that people do. It’s like using the word thing, right? Joseph and Fanny Alger had this dirty, nasty, filthy thing. There’s something that happened. Now, Oliver is pretty clear that it’s dirty, nasty and filthy. He’s very much against it. However, if you look at Oliver Cowdery’s known views on polygamy, he’s against it. He doesn’t think it’s a clean thing. He thinks it’s a filthy thing. So there’s nothing in Oliver’s wording that would preclude him referring to polygamy there, just referring to it in a very negative way. He says..

GT:  He would normally think it was negative no matter what.

Don:  Yeah. Joseph and Fanny had a dirty, nasty, filthy scrape. Or, they had a dirty, nasty, filthy thing going on between them. What was that thing? Sure, maybe it’s adultery here. Or maybe it’s illicit polygamy as far as Oliver is concerned.

GT:  So Oliver wouldn’t have made the distinction between polygamy and adultery. Is that what you’re saying?

Don:  Not necessarily. So we know that even when Oliver returns to the Church in the late 1840s, people are telling him about polygamy. He’s having a hard time believing it. He says, “I can’t imagine.” This shows a little naivety here when you hear this. But he says, “I can’t imagine that Brigham would condone such a thing.” {Chuckling}

GT:  So it sounds like Eliza [R. Snow] believed that the relationship with Fanny and Joseph was a marriage.

Don:  Yes.

Check out our conversation….

Don Bradley says Oliver Cowdery referred to Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger as a “dirty, nasty, filthy scrape” rather than “affair” as has been frequently cited.

And don’t miss our previous conversation with Don Bradley:   Dating Fanny Alger

1 thought on “Rewriting Oliver’s Words: Dirty, Filthy, Nasty Scrape? (Part 2 of 12)

  1. A lot of cloth has been weaved out of a scrap of thread here.

    “Joseph’s dissolute life began already in Kirtland. He was sealed there secretely to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.” — Chauncey Webb

    “Fanny Alger’s mother says Fanny was sealed to Joseph by Oliver Cowdery in Kirtland in 1835-or 6.” — Eliza Webb (Eliza was Chauncey’s wife. Fanny Alger’s mother was Clarissa, the brother of Levi Hancock.)

    “Father takes Fanny to Joseph and said ‘Brother Joseph I have been successful in my mission’ —Father gave her to Joseph repeating the Ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.” — Mosiah Hancock (The son of Levi Hancock.)

    The claim that Eliza was pregnant comes from the same family (Chauncey and Eliza Webb) who claimed that Oliver sealed Fanny to Joseph. Credible?

    They are contradicted by Fanny’s cousin Mosiah, who claimed his father performed a sealing.

    This cloth has huge, obvious holes in it.

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